After two years to stay largely close to home, it felt good to be new. I walked into an eastern Oregon steakhouse, the kind of small-town independent restaurant I had missed so much during Covid, whose sign promised “A Bit of Country Cook’n.” Two separate people had recommended it. But what was written on the restaurant’s reading board made me stop abruptly, my hand frozen on the car door handle: “Resist, defy, don’t conform.
By the end of 2021, the new rhythms of dining in Seattle during the pandemic had gone from odd to routine — pulling a photo of the vaccine card from a phone’s Favorites album, being careful not to show to host a photo of a dopey dog by mistake; rushing for a mask when the waiter approaches or donning puffy jackets for patio dining in the dead of winter. But that song and dance aren’t on the playlist outside of Seattle.
Masks had been particularly rare during pit stops along my road trip—despite an active indoor mandate statewide in Oregon—but for the first time, I wondered how my own KN95 would be received. Reading between the signs of the quirky little restaurant—several signs near the door sported anti-vaccine messages—the expectation of weak precautions and possible hostility sent my internal risk assessor skyrocketing into treacherous territory. I retreated to the nearby Dairy Queen for dinner, where a teenager wearing a paper mask handed out fries and a shake through the drive-in window.
In the early days of Covid, travel was primarily the responsibility of the traveller: don’t bring the virus into vacation communities or overload tiny town health systems. Today the calculation is complicated; what does it mean to sample local flavors when those locals don’t share your risk tolerance?
Jaime Eder, Travel Oregon’s industry communications manager who lives in Portland, agrees that the difference in masking and distancing in rural areas can cause a new kind of disorientation. The group, which promotes tourism in Oregon, encourages consistency among its partners, “but it gets really difficult when it comes to individual businesses,” she says. “We can only communicate state guidelines.”
The dynamic is not limited to urban travelers who are wary of loose pandemic practices; Across the country, tourists go wild on vacation, with frontline workers bearing the brunt of their antics. Airline passengers have learned the hard way that pilots, facing a threat as old as time, will flip that plane in the face of bad behavior, usually covert refusal. In early 2021, a man was even arrested for spitting on a Disney World employee who insisted he wear a mask.
This consideration of who interacts with tourists is key for Nancy Jecker, professor of bioethics and humanities at the University of Washington School of Medicine. In her work on travel and ethics, she notes that some communities are economically dependent on visitors and that jobs in this sector are the most vulnerable. The question she asked travelers to ask: “Are we helping or harming us?” »
In our highest reasoning, traveling is about understanding different places and people. But as travelers visit new places, entering ideological battlegrounds in our vacation shoes, we now wonder if our presence will help or hurt us. Of course, this dilemma has long been known to people of color and other underrepresented groups venturing into the culture of a new community.
Push and pull is not easy for business owners. John Pool, owner of Roslyn Cafe in the town of Roslyn, central Washington, since 2019 (you remember him in the credits of North exposure) says it’s just one of four public spaces in the city that require everyone to wear a mask indoors. “I have fewer problems with tourists,” he says, a significant part of his clientele.
On a sunny winter weekend, the quaint blocks of downtown Roslyn are mostly out-of-towners — locals are “having fun before the weekend,” Pool says — and the amount of masking is roughly equivalent to that of Seattle. Ignore the hip-high snowdrifts and towering evergreens, and Roslyn’s commercial district might pass for Capitol Hill.
“People are the craziest they’ve ever been, they want to travel,” Travel Oregon’s Eder says of the newest form of tension in visitor spaces. While public health mandates and guidelines cover entire counties and states — and eventually get lifted — an individual traveler’s experience still hinges on the very individual inhabitants. “It’s a tough nut to crack.”